The ins and outs of composting

‘A good way to manage difficult to manage materials’

Making compost can help keep harmful materials out of landfills where they take up space and release methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Making compost can help keep harmful materials out of landfills where they take up space and release methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

SEARS — Are you looking for ways to improve your green impact on the earth? At-home composting could be your ticket.

A popular practice among Earth-lovers, composting is a way to keep organic waste out of landfills. Defined as an organic material that can be added to soil to help plants grow, compost is often made up of food scraps and yard waste.

These waste products together currently make up more than 30% of what is normally thrown away, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Making compost keeps these materials out of landfills where they take up space and release methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Morgan Composting, located at 4353 U.S. 10 in Sears, has been utilizing the nitrogen-focused practice for 25 years. 

The business is known best for making Dairy Doo, which is a high-quality, designer compost. The business also makes potting soils and fertilizers that are powered by Dairy Doo including their Seed Starter 101, FlowerDoo 201, VeggieDoo 301, Healthy Garden 7-6-5, and Safe Green Lawn. These products are organic, without harmful chemicals, and Michigan-made. 

Theo Medendorp, an agronomist at Morgan, said the business utilizes a unique composting process.

“There are a couple of different types of composting,” Medendorp said. “The compost that we do is called a thermophilic windrow process. Basically, we take in the manure, it gets mixed with a certain amount of carbon to bring it up to the proper carbon to nitrogen ratio, and then it's adjusted to the proper moisture. Once the mix is correct, it's laid out in long windrose. Those are then left to heat up to a minimum of 131 degrees, and then it has to stay in that temperature range of 131 to 150, for a minimum of 15 days with five turnings within that period.

We let it continue composting until it starts to cool down and goes into what's called the mesophilic period,” he added. “That is just a cooling period, and then once it reaches a low enough temperature, it would be stockpiled and allowed to gear over the winter for sale the following year.”

According to Science Direct, windrow composting is advantageous because a relatively large volume of material can be handled. The biosolids are combined and homogenized with a bulking agent – most often wood chips – and the mix is then formed into one or more windrows, which are long piles exposed to the air and sized for mechanical turning by appropriate machinery. 

Medendorp said the ratio of chemicals is key to the process. 

“The starting feedstock is important, you have to make sure that there's enough carbon and enough nitrogen, but not too much of one or the other,” Medendorp said. “If you have too much nitrogen, you end up with bad smells, and if you don't have enough nitrogen or you add too much carbon, it won't heat up properly. That heating process is very important for killing pathogens and weed seeds and similar things.

The turnings are important in our form of composting just because even if the center gets to that 131 to 145, the outside may not be quite to that temperature,” he added.  “By turning it a minimum of five times you ensure that that outside material or any portions that may not be right in that center get reincorporated and reheated.” 

According to the EPA, the benefits of composting include enriching soil, helping retain moisture, suppressing plant diseases and pests, reducing the need for chemical fertilizers, encouraging the production of beneficial bacteria and fungi that break down organic matter to create humus (a rich nutrient-filled material), and reducing methane emissions from landfills and lowers your carbon footprint.

Medendorp said composting can be a good way to recycle soil and waste. 

“With using compost, you can increase organic matter,” Medendorp said. “In turn, this increases the amount of water and nutrition that the soil holds by increasing the amount of nutrition that it will hold, as well as the amount of water you reduce runoff. You reduce leaching down through the soil layers things are more likely to get caught and stay in an area that will be plant available and enabled to be used by the plant there are quite a few nutrients that come from compost.

Similar to a fertilizer, it does have a fertilizer value it's useful for feeding plants,” he added, “That's also a good way to manage difficult to manage materials. With manure, when you're stockpiling it, you have the risk of bleaching or pollution, and composting reduces the risk of that happening. You also encourage aerobic conditions, which minimizes the production of things like methane and ammonia and some of the more concerning greenhouse gases when they're just stockpiled or landfilled because you don't have that aeration you tend to get more production of that.”

For at-home composting, there are many different ways to get started. Helpful tools include pitchforks, square-point shovels or machetes, and water hoses with a spray head. Regular mixing or turning of the compost and some water will help maintain the compost.

To start, if you’re working with an outdoor compost bin, selecting a dry, shady spot near a water source for your compost pile or bin is best. If you do not have space for an outdoor compost pile, you can compost materials indoors using a special type of bin, which you can buy at a local hardware store, gardening supplies store, or make one yourself.

 A properly managed compost bin will not attract pests or rodents and will not smell bad. All composting requires three basic ingredients; Browns which include materials like dead leaves, branches, and twigs; greens which include grass clippings, vegetable waste, fruit scraps, and coffee grounds; and water. 

Medendorp said ensuring you’re using the right materials in the right way is important. 

“There's a lot of resources online that will show you the average carbon to nitrogen ratio and how much of another material you may have to add to get it to the right spot,” Medendorp said. “Then, it's basically just a matter of letting it sit and break down. For hot composting, it can be a little difficult at home to get it up to the right temperature. A lot of people look at in-vessel composting, which can be a good way to increase the temperature and make sure that it actually gets up to temperature. 

People often run into the issue with food scraps as they can't get enough volume to actually get the regular hot composting process started,” he continued. As you can imagine, if you let vegetables or fruit or anything sit around for a long time, you tend to get smells and odors. By doing worm composting, you actually can just let the worms that eat that food and turn it into a usable compost, then you could just add little bits all the time from meals and things like that. Basically, you just separate off the worms from the worm castings to use it and then continue to feed them other food sources.

I would probably start with using worm composting for things like food scraps, and then with leaves,” he added. “Then you really can just put them in a pile and turn them occasionally maybe add a little bit of nitrogen to speed up the breakdown process. Because you're not dealing with something that has any kind of pathogens and you're not worried about a manure, you're not as worried about getting up to temperature. So, as long as you can avoid introducing too many weed seeds, just letting it break down naturally and turn in the compost over a long period can be a good method.” 

Some examples of things that are good to compost are fruits, vegetables, eggshells, coffee grounds and filters, tea bags, nutshells, shredded newspaper, cardboard, paper, and yard trimmings. Other options could be sawdust, wood chips, cotton and wool rags, hair and fur, and even fireplace ashes. 

Materials not to compost include black walnut tree leaves or twigs because they release substances that might be harmful to plants; coal or charcoal ash, as they might contain substances harmful to plants; dairy products like butter, milk, sour cream, yogurt, and eggs because they create odor problems and attract pests such as rodents and flies; diseased or insect-ridden plants as these diseases or insects might survive and be transferred back to other plants; fats, grease, lard, or oils due to the fact that they also create odor problems and attract pests such as rodents and flies. 

You can learn more about Morgan Composting’s products by visiting their website www.dairydoo.com. For more information on composting processes and tips, you can contact Morgan’s Composting at 231-734-2451 or via email at info@dairydoo.com.